As part of the UKYCC intersectionality series, this piece aims to offer an insight into the Climate Crisis in the context of class. By no means is this writing a definitive account of class and climate change, but I hope it promotes discussion and further understanding among those that often fail to incorporate a class dimension in approaches to addressing the crisis we face.
Let’s start with intersectionality
So, let’s start with intersectionality. In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw brought the term into use in a paper examining the interplay of gendered AND racialised oppression in the workplace for African-American women. Over 20 years on, intersectionality now has a major role to play in climate justice. To help explain the term a little more, here’s what Crenshaw said in a 2017 interview on the subject:
“Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”
It’s important to understand that we cannot look at climate change through a class lens alone. Those folks that are economically disenfranchised are also LGBTQI+, people of colour, able and disabled, women, white and so on. With this in mind, I will try and explore some of the ways in which the effects of climate change and class intersect.
In the midst of a Crisis
Climate change is undoubtedly the defining issue of our time and it’s a hugely emotive subject driven compounded by injustice and existential grief, loss and destruction of the natural world.
Driven by our fossil fuel addiction and environmentally devastating agricultural practices, climate change without doubt poses the greatest threat to human existence on Earth. Take a glance at just the previous year for an indication as to the extreme direction we are headed. Whether that be record-breaking temperatures causing death due to excessive heat in South Korea, widespread crop failure in North Korea, wildfires raging from the Arctic Circle to California; the devastating effects of climate change are playing out before our eyes.
The effects of climate breakdown aren’t an abstract future. Large swathes of the global population are facing the effects and certainly find themselves in the midst of the Climate Crisis. However, people are affected by climate change in very different ways to one another based upon structures of oppression such as the economic system, patriarchy and racialisation. Here we will look at how climate change and class intersect.
How did we arrive in this Crisis?
It would be easy to think that the Climate Crisis has simply come about by a failure to adequately curb greenhouse gas emissions. However, when unpacked, it is evident that class is at the heart of the issue. The sole reason we face a Climate Crisis is due to political ideology. This choice has been made by powerful governments, and corporations. It’s an ideological decision to continue the capitalist pursuit of profit, rooted in racism, patriarchy and colonialism over the needs of the masses.
Scientists, politicians, lawmakers and industry the world over have known about the devastating consequences that our capitalist economic model, and its environmental and social impact on the Earth. As of yet, they have failed to adequately address the issue. Even though a growing number of scientists believe it to be overly conservative, the IPCC 1.5 C report may well be viewed as a landmark report in years to come. Perhaps the most notable reading to come out of the report is the way in which it’s expressed that Capitalism and a healthy climate aren’t compatible.
The only transition is a just transition, cemented in climate justice for all, not a select few.
The climate crisis is a class crisis. Not only are those suffering the worst effects of climate change often women, children, and people of colour, but also the least wealthy among us. Further to this, climate injustice is magnified when looking to those communities facing the worst effects, that have conversely contributed the least to the crisis.
Research shows that the most polluting industries are often found in close proximity to low-income communities, with knock-on effects on health, reinforced by access to healthcare. It’s also important to understand that unequal distribution of exposure to the most environmentally damaging industries doesn’t just fall on those with low income with unjust racial distribution of exposure also common. This is just one example of how multiple identities intersect.
A decline in organised working class institutions
Erosion of organised labour and unions in the 1980s removed the most likely challenger to the free market orthodoxy of fossil capital expansion, resulting in the climate crisis we face today. However, exploitation of poor, often migrant workers is embroiled within the structures of climate breakdown. For instance, SSE recently made headlines with it’s exploitative labour practices that abused migrant workers on a fraction of minimum wage. These abused workers were constructing renewable energy infrastructure that is seen as imperative for a low-carbon future. However, low-cost renewable infrastructure should not come at a cost of human exploitation. Climate justice offers an opportunity to do things differently, an alternative approach for the benefit of all.
Toward climate justice
Solutions to avert climate breakdown are complicated, nuanced and must fall outside of our current orthodox thinking. The only solutions to achieve climate justice will be those that address the needs of all people at the same time as breaking down structures of oppression.
One such solution is the development of organised, militant working-class unions emerging at the forefront of the climate justice movement. These institutions need to be democratic, hold corporate power to account and radically alter the economic system in the interests of the masses, with environmental concerns front and centre.